Every day we are bombarded by news about a new smartphone on the market. It's fast! It has Ice Cream Sandwich! LTE! Yet, for all the new innovations in mobile technology over the last couple of years, the current bumper crop of smartphones on the market is relatively uninspiring. Every new device from various manufacturers looks surprisingly similar to the one that came before. If you are in the market for a new smartphone, what are you to do?
In searching for a new smartphone to replace my dying Motorola Atrix, I stopped into a Radioshack to get the lay of the land. When I asked the sales rep, Jeff, what was new and exciting on the market right now he just shrugged. "It is the end of the first quarter," Jeff said. "There is really nothing exciting out right now." Jeff was partially right. There is nothing exciting out right now but the problem is not just because of the first quarter. For an early adopter looking for the best new device, the landscape has become wholly uninspired.
Replacing the old Model
As a professional early adopter, I have a rotating set of plans through AT&T that gives me phone upgrades every 10 months or so. I keep track of what is coming down the pipeline from all the OEMs and what carrier's will be selling them. So, there is a wide net for the search to replace the Atrix. What are the best options?
The problem, as mentioned above, is that there just are not any devices on the market that cause an early adopter to shiver with excitement. Samsung has a plethora of devices on the market but each one looks like the one that came before. In many cases, Samsung devices are the same smartphones that came before, just rebranded for a different carrier. Follow that up with ho-hum releases from HTC, Motorola, LG and Nokia and the market is thin.
Image: Nokia Lumia 800 available in Europe
Jeff from Radioshack likened the current smartphone market to the cereal aisle in a grocery store. "You walk in looking for a cereal and there are like 300 options," Jeff said. "But, when it comes down to it, there are really only four. You have your fruity cereals, wheat cereals, corn cereals and sugary cereals. The smartphone market is pretty much the same thing."
Samsung is the largest culprit. Walk into an AT&T store and tell the sales rep you are looking for a smartphone that is not an iPhone and the first three devices he will show you are Samsung. That includes the ridiculous Galaxy Note, the older Samsung Galaxy S II and the Skyrocket. Ask for an HTC device and you are pointed at the Inspire or the Vivid, both in the middle range of the smartphone scale ($99 on contract). Motorola? Nokia? Yeah, good luck with that.
Image: Samsung Nexus S, the flagship device for Android Gingerbread
For Verizon, the problem does not get any better. We walked up to a Verizon kiosk at the mall and said, "what is the best phone you have right now?" The sales rep immediately pointed us to Droid Razr Maxx, a smartphone from Motorola that is a Droid Razr with a bigger battery and still only running Android Gingerbread 2.3.5.
So, we kept looking. What we realized is that right now is just not a good time to be buying a smartphone if you are an early adopter. On the other hand, if you are a casual consumer, right now is a great time to be buying a smartphone. There are a ton of older devices that are perfectly capable that are very affordable. If you are just looking for a smartphone that works to minimal expectations, the world is your oyster.
Note on criteria: Devices need to be relatively new, within the last couple of months or yet to be released. That precludes the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy II from the list even though both are still quality devices. Phones with "4G" LTE and dual-core processors are given precedence as are Android devices running Ice Cream Sandwich. The problem with that criteria? We were not able to find many devices that had those particular specs.
We have picked three devices from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon as the best bets for early adopters looking for new smartphones.
Prices listed on two-year contract.
Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket HD
Price: Unreleased (Rumor $199)
Running: Android 4.1
What to like: This phone is essentially the Samsung Galaxy Nexus rebranded by AT&T. It will likely sport ICS and have NFC and run on AT&T's LTE network.
What not to like: Samsung. Since it is not the actual Galaxy Nexus serving as the flagship Android 4.0 device, it will likely be given Samsung's TouchWiz skin or whatever passes for the OEMs Android user interface these days. When we asked the AT&T sales rep what our options were for Android phones running ICS with LTE and NFC capabilities, they looked at us like we were crazy. "We do not have anything like that right now," the rep said. "May, at the very earliest."
Nokia Lumia 900
Price: Unreleased (Rumor $100)
Running: Windows Phone Mango
What to like: The top end Nokia Lumia devices are some of the finest hardware available on the smartphone market right now. The Lumia 800 series has been available in parts of Europe since November 2011 but only one Lumia device (the 710 on T-Mobile) has made it stateside. The prediction here is that Nokia will sell a decent amount of smartphones in the U.S based on the 900's hardware because once consumers hold it in their hands, it is hard to put back down. This device is predicted to land at AT&T at the end of March.
What not to like: It depends on how you feel about Windows Phone, which will be the argument for any non-Android device on this list. The app ecosystem falls short of expectations set by iOS and Android and the UI takes quite a bit of getting used to coming from the two dominant smartphone operating systems.
HTC One X
Price: Unreleased (Rumor $199+)
Running: Android 4.0
What to like: HTC had a poor 2011 and saw sales drop against the wave of Samsung devices flooding the market. Part of that was Samsung's fault but HTC's Android devices were relatively tame updates to their existing smartphones that took the Android ecosystem by storm in 2011. The early reviews of the HTC One series are positive coming out of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. The HTC One series, which is expected to have an iteration on every U.S. carrier is a quad-core dynamo with robust specs. For the early adopter, this may actually be a device to get excited about.
What not to like: When ICS was announced, one of the big worries for OEMs like HTC were the fact that a lot of what made HTC different - its Sense UI - was integrated into Android 4.0. We will see when the HTC One X hits the market if it holds to the same standards that HTC has come to be known for.
Samsung Galaxy Nexus
Running: Android 4.0
What to like: The flagship ICS device. Pure unadulterated Android with NFC, LTE and a dual-core processor. If you are an Android fan the device you want is the flagship for newest flavor of the operating system.
What not to like: Verizon is playing tough with Google Wallet hence handicapping one of the better features of the operating system. What precludes the carrier from blocking other great Android features?
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx
Running: Android 2.3.5
What to like: For all its woes, Motorola still makes decent hardware. If the Atrix that I am replacing is an indication though, that hardware may not hold up over the long haul. The Razr Maxx is Motorola's answer to the first Droid Razr that was incredibly thin and slick except lacked decent battery life. The Razr Maxx essentially provides a bigger battery.
What not to like: It is mildly amazing that Motorola does not yet have a smartphone running Ice Cream Sandwich and only one (the Droid Fighter?) rumored in the pipeline. The specs page for the Razr Maxx says it will be upgradeable to ICS but consumers have come not to trust over the air upgrade cycles and promises from carriers and OEMs.
Running: Android 2.3.7
What to like: Honestly, it was really hard finding another Verizon smartphone, released or unreleased, to be included in this list. Outside of the Samsung Galaxy S II, iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus S, there are not a lot of other phone to really like coming from Verizon. At least AT&T has three unreleased devices that could be considered mildly exciting. The Rezound is the precursor to whatever HTC One devices come to Verizon and is essentially the same undifferentiated offering from HTC. If you like HTC Sense and big screens (4.3 inches), this is what you will like about this phone.
What not to like: Pretty much just covered that with what you like section.
Running: Android 2.3.5
What to like: This smartphone is still mostly a rumor at this point but internal documents leaked during CES in January say that it will be a Gingerbread device running LTE. It also is apparently eco-friendly, made from recycled materials.
What not to like: There has not been an LG device that has inspired excitement since in the last five years. Also running Gingerbread when LG has smartphones in the pipeline ready for ICS.
Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch
Running: Android 2.3
What to like: Well, it is a Samsung Galaxy II, more or less. Outside of the iPhone 4S, this is the best smartphone being offered by Sprint right now.
What not to like: That aforementioned Samsung problem and the fact that it is running Gingerbread. Sprint loves to take Samsung Galaxy devices and give them design tweaks and overly-long names. Just look at the phone (pictured right) and ask yourself: how is that any different from smartphones we have been seeing for the last two years?
Running: iOS 5
What to like: It is an iPhone. On Sprint.
What not to like: It is an iPhone. On Sprint.
How Excited Are You?
Yes, we broke our criteria for the final smartphone on Sprint's network but look at that list above and the original point has been proven: there are not a lot of great new devices on the market and few exciting devices in the pipeline. We would have included T-Mobile on the list but, frankly, the pickings were pretty slim in comparison to even Sprint.
Android devices have created a ubiquitous market for consumers looking for smartphones in the $0-$150 price range. The Droid Razr, Bionic and Atrix 2 are fine devices if you do not mind getting something a little older.
What is the most exciting device in the pipeline? Probably the Nokia Lumia 900 or one of the HTC One smartphones. There is a reason that the iPhone has dominated smartphone sales in the U.S. followed by Samsung. When it comes to quality devices and cross-market ubiquity, those are the two OEMs that have the most and best offerings.
What device are you looking to buy? What tipped your scales towards that device? Let us know in the comments.